REGINA, Saskatchewan — So I didn’t see art this weekend in my two Canadian Football League experiences. One game was 29-1 (I love the rouge) in the final minute, Calgary over Montreal and new import Chad “Humble Pie” Johnson. The other, here at rickety Mosaic Stadium, was 31-1 midway through the third quarter, Saskatchewan over Hamilton in a fizzled Grey Cup rematch.
That’s okay. Training camps in the CFL are short, and the early games often stink. What I did find here on the prairies north of Montana and North Dakota—when I asked one Roughrider fan what the nearest American city was, she said, “Minot”—was a fierce love of their game, very little NFL envy, and some wonderment that no one in America cares a whit about this hidden game up here.
Case in point: The quarterback of the Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders, Darian Durant, jogged off the field Sunday on one of the most miserable days for a football game I’ve ever experienced (low fifties, high and biting winds, sheets of sideways rain that occasionally slowed but never stopped all day), and found me. “Thanks a lot for coming and covering us,’’ he said. “We play some good ball, and we have lots of players up here who played at a high level in college. Then I watch ‘SportsCenter’ and they cover everything else, even the international soccer over and over, and never us. It’s frustrating sometimes.” (Note: On Friday ESPN announced a multiyear broadcast deal to carry the CFL. It will carry 17 games on one of its channels and 69 on its digital service, ESPN3.)
So while the NFL is on hiatus with nothing happening, here’s a window into the league you ignore (and I have too, for the vast majority of my football-writing career) on a weekend with four games in a nine-team league:
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Montreal Alouettes at Calgary Stampeders
McMahon Stadium, 1 p.m. MT
At the stadium where the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympics happened, the place looks about 60 percent full for the Stamps’ opener. I have come with rudimentary knowledge of the CFL, having attended just one game, the 1991 Grey Cup with Rocket Ismail in it. I am trying to see the game as if it were my first CFL experience, which, almost, it is. The first things I notice:
- Speed of the game. Not just the 20-second play clock, which, in such a passing league, makes the receivers who’ve just run 25 yards downfield have to be mindful to hustle back to the huddle. But because all receivers can be in frenetic motion before the snap, circling the quarterback or sprinting from one side of the field to the other (the CFL field is 12 yards wider than the NFL), the line of scrimmage looks muddled and unfocused. “Sometimes,’’ recently retired CFL receiving legend Geroy Simon told me, “I’d run 40 yards before the ball was snapped. You’ve got to be in better shape for this game than college football or the NFL.”
- Chad Johnson. Wearing number 85 with “Johnson,” not “Ocho Cinco” on his back, a chastened Chad, 36, was split right mostly, not engaged much in the motion that makes CFL receivers and slot backs long-distance runners. “It’s a track meet,’’ he said after the game. Johnson caught two balls for 20 yards, struggling to adjust to the wild pitches of new Alouettes quarterback Troy Smith, the former Raven and 49er, who looked inaccurate, and that’s putting it mildly. More about Johnson later in the column.
- Weirdness of the rouge. So the rouge is a one-point scoring play. If you miss a field goal or punt the ball into the end zone and the defensive team doesn’t advance it out of the end zone, you get a point. Fascinating strategy to me. Imagine the game’s 28-28 with 10 seconds left and you’re at the opponents’ 20-yard line and you trust your punter more than your field-goal kicker. A coach can send in the punter and tell him to boom one high into the 20-yard end zone. If the punt team surrounds the returner and prevents him from getting out or kicking the ball out (another quirky rule—the return man can punt the ball back from the end zone in this case), the punting team wins 29-28. And games have ended this way.
- Advertising. Two ad patches (NAPA Auto Parts and Western Direct Insurance) are on the fronts of Calgary jerseys, and there are ads displayed on the turf throughout the league too. A little NASCARish for me.
- Reasonable cost. I met some fans with season tickets at the goal line, three rows up from the field, at McMahon Stadium. Cost: $225 for nine home games, 25 bucks a game.
Now for Chad Johnson. I met him at midfield. We’ve had our moments. But I watched the 36-year-old receiver with 766 career catches, none since 2011, a lot during the game, and there was none of the gesturing at the quarterback, or anything but lining up (mostly wide right) and trying to beat 30-year-old cornerback Fred Bennett down the field.
That's Chad Johnson, underneath cornerback Seth Williams, in a moment that captures just how incognito the former NFL receiver is in the CFL right now. (Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
“A joy," he said at midfield, describing what it was like to play in football game for the first time in 33 months. “A joy. That feeling, as a kid, you wake up on Christmas, the excitement. I’m just thankful to have a chance to play again. I didn’t care about catches, I didn't care about the ball. I mean, the feeling just being part of something again, being part of this organization … I mean, words really can’t describe how it felt, to lose something that I worked for all my life and have it snatched from me because of my irresponsibilities and my mistakes. A lesson was learned. Humbling experience. I don’t know what to say. It’s awesome."
Lots of players come north and expect to dominate. Maybe Johnson does too, but he doesn’t know enough yet about the game. He just hasn’t been in enough competitive situations yet. But he’s in shape, and he’s different than he was when Joe Philbin whacked him on national TV in “Hard Knocks” two years ago. At least he seems different now.
“From what I’ve been able to assess … the speed of the game is equivalent to the NFL. The talent level, there’s more elite players in the NFL. But a lot of the players I’ve seen out here can play at the next level … I come down here with the utmost respect for the game, and to learn all the nuances I can so I can be the best Chad I can be for the Alouettes."
He’s playing, he said, because he says he knew he still could. “It just feels good," he said. “And I thank you.”
With that, he kissed me on the right cheek and ran off the field.
MEDICINE HAT, Alberta
8:30 p.m. MT
I am 250 miles from Regina, home of the Roughriders. Calgary’s 75 miles closer … yet this place with the name I’ve always loved, in Calgary’s province, is a Rider stronghold. Diane Schneider, the waitress at Rossco’s (“The Wing King”) has her face painted in all kinds of wild green designs, and when Tim Dort shows off a Rider-tricked-out vehicle, The Fanbulance (an ambulance converted into a Riders party van), she gets emotional. “My God,’’ she said, “if I was in this, it’s like I’d died and gone to heaven!”
I wondered: How did the Riders get so beloved?
“They’re more than a team that plays in Regina," said local sportscaster Ryan Flaherty. “They become a part of people’s lives there."
His story: His family grew up two and a half hours from Regina, in Saskatoon, and had season tickets to the games and went to every home game. Flaherty’s mom, Kathrine, got to love underdog defensive back Richie Hall, a 5-6 player from Texas who scratched and clawed his way to all-CFL status. She came down with breast cancer in 1994. Ryan’s father told a relative how wonderful it would be if Richie Hall would give her a call to boost her spirits. One day during Kathrine’s treatments, Richie Hall knocked on their door. He’d driven, by himself, the 155 miles to their home. He stayed for several hours. “After he left,’’ Ryan said, “she wouldn’t let anyone sit in the chair he sat in. It was a shrine.”
Years passed. In 2009, the cancer returned. Now it was terminal. Richie Hall got word. He called Kathrine Flaherty, then sent flowers. He sent flowers again weeks later. Though he was now working for the Edmonton Eskimos as a coach, he got his friends in Saskatchewan to send a care package with souvenirs to her. “Mom was over the moon," Ryan said. He sent cards.
She died in 2010.
Hall is now the defensive coordinator of the Roughriders. I asked him Sunday if he recalled the Flahertys. He said he did. I asked him why he’d done what he did.
“I’ve had so many blessings in my life from people helping me along the way,’’ he said. “Isn’t that what we should be doing? Shouldn’t we be there for each other when we’re needed?”
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Hamilton at Saskatchewan, 4 p.m. MT
Corey Chamblin has his eye on the NFL but is happy in Canada. (Brent Just/Getty Images)
Corey Chamblin, the 37-year-old head coach of the Roughriders, is a perfect example of how the players and coaches in the league view the NFL. A defensive back from Tennessee Tech, he had cups of coffee with five NFL teams. Eight years ago, he got an offer to coach defensive backs in Winnipeg and took it—and was a head coach younger than he ever thought he’d be. “I was a head coach at age 35,’’ he said in his office before the game, “and I thought I’d have to be in my forties before I ever got that chance. What I’ve learned to do is do the best job I can at whatever job I have. If you’re good, people will find you." He’s a bright guy, he’s been mentored by Mike Tomlin, and he’ll likely get a shot to interview in the NFL one day. It happened with Marc Trestman, after all.
The one reason the life here is more tolerable for coaches (and players, really) is the amount of time they get to be off. Chamblin gave his coaches 10 weeks off after winning the Grey Cup last November. They came back and scouted some in late February, and then he gave them another three to four weeks off before training camp. The players, similarly, get to have much more of a normal off-season than in the NFL. Many of the players stay in Regina or Saskatchewan year-round, because the off-season jobs and paid appearances are plentiful. “I played in Vancouver most of my career,’’ said Geroy Simon, now employed as a Roughriders ambassador. “But I’m here now. In Vancouver, you can make some money off the field. In Saskatchewan, you can support yourself."
As a coach, Chamblin sees lots of different players come to Canada. “Lots of guys come up thinking they’re going to dominate, and they soon realize the caliber of play is very close to the NFL,’’ he said. “What I tell guys is that in the CFL, you’re either taking off or landing. Some guys are so focused on getting down south that they don’t focus enough on their jobs. They usually don’t last long. At the end of the day, it comes down to this: ‘Do you love football?’ If you do, and you’re good, you make it.’’
One more thing for Chamblin: I wondered about the mayhem by receivers at the line of scrimmage.
“When I first took a job up here,’’ he said, “I hadn’t seen CFL ball yet, and it was a surprise. It’s organized chaos. All the receivers are trying to do is set up the defensive backs. When they hit the line of scrimmage—this is what I tell my players—it’s U.S. ball. Everything before they do that is window-dressing.’’
Maybe. Looks a lot harder to decipher than that.
* * *
I met some fans before the game.
One, a 27-year-old woman from Edmonton, Connie Dobson, drives 490 miles each way to the games.
One man plays in a tough football league in town with four former Riders.
There was flooding outside Mosaic Stadium before the Roughriders hosted the Tiger-Cats. (Brent Just/Getty Images)
One woman, Shelli Logan, started crying when she detailed why she loved the team so much. “That’s why I will sit here in this rain for the entire game, and I will yell at anyone who leaves early, ‘Part-time fans!’"
One woman, dressed as a nun, as Sister Saskatchewan, drives five hours each way, with her husband and four kids.
I met Jerrell Freeman, the Colts’ rising star linebacker, whose pro career started with three years here. He comes back once of twice a year. “It’s like a college atmosphere,’’ he said. “I just love coming back. I remember early on in my first year, when I went out for an appearance, I wasn’t a big player on the team at all, and those people knew everything about me. They study the players.”
And I went to the team store. Met director of retail operations Mark Habicht, who told me, “At our stores last year [the team has four retail outlets], we did $13 million of business. We have a population of about a million in the province. I like to say, people in the province spend an average of $13 per person on Riders gear.’’
More than a few people said this to me: Saskatchewan is the Green Bay of the CFL—right down to the green colors. Just as Green Bay has tentacles into every state in the union, so too do the Riders in Canada. They consistently have a section or sections of visiting stadiums filled with their fans. It’s a tough crowd at home sometimes too. A couple of years ago, the best back in the league, Jon Cornish of the Stampeders, was getting ridden so hard that he mooned the crowd in section 28, traditionally the area of Mosaic Stadium with the toughest fans.
And then it was time for the game. They have a lot of gophers in Saskatchewan, and so the team mascot is Gainer the Gopher, a portly, 6-foot-5 gopher described in the Roughriders media guide as a “fun-loving, high-energy rodent.” I met him on the field just before the players came out. My poncho was blowing in every direction with the gusts up to 40 mph, and the rain pellets blowing against my face, I thought, would leave marks.
“How about this weather?’ I said to Gainer the Gopher.
“I’ve been doing this 21 years,’’ he said through his mouth hole. “This might be the worst weather we’ve ever had for a game.”
I can’t tell you how many people, on Twitter and in person, apologized for the weather, and the fact that there were 12,000 no-shows—many from a nearby community that had gotten eight inches of rain over the weekend; people were just trying to survive. But the 19,000 who came went nuts during introductions, and when the Grey Cup champions from all four of the Riders' Cup-winning teams were introduced at halftime.
As the Riders sprinted to a huge early lead, playing with the wind in a dominant first quarter, Geroy Simon watched the game from a box upstairs. “People in the States, a lot of them, think this is like semi-pro, or some beer league,’’ he said. “I know. I was on Tampa Bay’s practice squad for a year and a half. Jon Gruden coached me in Philly for three weeks. I played for Bill Cowher for three weeks in Pittsburgh. So I know. You have to be a good football player to play here.”
Last note: It’s just two games, but two differences struck me most among the teams I saw in the CFL: the quality of the offensive line and the quarterback. Montreal and Hamilton couldn’t protect. Calgary and Saskatchewan could. Durant’s a good player who makes quick decisions and escapes trouble well.
In many ways, isn’t that universal in football?
Anthony Calvillo retired in January after a 20-year career. He left the CFL as the most decorated passer in league history. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/AP)
The best player we’ve never seen.
Quarterback Anthony Calvillo retired from the Montreal Alouettes in January after a 20-year career in the Canadian Football League. He threw for more yards, 79,816, than any other quarterback in pro football history. He was 35 when Marc Trestman took the head coaching job of the Alouettes in 2008, but the five years that followed, collectively, were the best of Calvillo's career: 164 touchdown passes, 48 interceptions and two CFL championships. Calvillo grew up a Raiders fan in Los Angeles and did what so many undersized (6-1, 205 pounds) American quarterbacks who don’t get a chance in the NFL do—he went north of the border to seek his fortune. So for the first time in two decades, the CFL kicked off a season without Calvillo in it.
Calvillo on his life as a CFL icon:
“It’s been an incredible life, an incredible career. I’m very happy with what I was able to accomplish. The game up here was a good fit for me. I’m a pretty accurate passer, and the game moves so fast, which fits the way I like to play.
I can play scenarios over and over, but for me, my timing was not meant to be," Calvillo says of the NFL. "I am not bitter, not at all. I’m very much at peace with it.
“People always wonder, ‘Well, what about the NFL?’ I had a little window, right after the 2002 season, when I worked out for the Seahawks and Jaguars. But I never got offered a contract by either of them. Then the Steelers had me come in, and they worked me out in front of their entire coaching staff and scouting staff. I didn't do too well. We won the Grey Cup that season in Montreal, and I had to have some ankle surgery right after the game, and I was still recovering from that. Pittsburgh had just released Kordell Stewart, and the deal was if they re-signed Charlie Batch, I would be out of the loop. A week after I tried out, they signed Charlie, and my window there was shut. Then I signed a long-term deal to stay in Montreal, and I never really thought about it again.
“I can play over scenarios over and over, but for me, my timing was not meant to be down south. I personally just shut the door after that. I am not bitter, not at all. I’m very much at peace with it. When I came out of college [Utah State], I was a [6-1], 185-pound Mexican quarterback, and the NFL wasn’t looking at small guys then. I was able to have a good career, and my life here is great. I got to Montreal in 1998, and the city is fantastic. I live here with my wife and children. She speaks four languages, and my kids are in French immersion school—the first three years of school they speak only French. So for me, an L.A. guy, this has been a great experience. Now Montreal is home.
“I loved playing for Marc Trestman [from 2008 to 2012]. Once we got to know his offense, I knew he would help me grow as a player. He came up with new challenges every week. Marc transformed our team, inside the locker room and on the field. He made us much more consistent as a team. Such a steady coach.
“One game sticks out to me—the Grey Cup in 2009. Some people call it the greatest game in Canadian history. We’re down 17-3 at half, and we’re still down 16 with eight minutes left in the game. We drive downfield for a touchdown, go for two, get it, hold Saskatchewan, get it back, score again, go for two, miss … So we’re down two. We get it back one last time and get in long field-goal range … and miss it. The Saskatchewan fans go nuts. They think they won the Grey Cup. But there’s a flag. Too many men on the field against them. We get another chance. We kick the field goal, win by one. Insane. People talk about that game to this day.
“I don’t watch much NFL. The guys I have respect for—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady—they want to be the best. It’s not about the money with them anymore. They’ve achieved so much. But they stay in because they want to win. I admire that.
“Now that I’m done, it’s starting to set in, the impact I’ve had, definitely here in the city. The championships, the yards, the wins. It’s fun to sit back and appreciate what I was able to accomplish."
Quotes of the Week
“Major foul … rough play … number 34 Montreal … disqualification … 25-yard penalty.”
—Referee Kim Murphy during the Montreal-Calgary game Saturday.
There are many odd pronouncements from the refs during CFL games, at least compared to the Steratores and Hochulis of the NFL world. That was about the strangest one of the weekend. Montreal linebacker Kyries Hebert absolutely bludgeoned Stampeders running back Jon Cornish with a classic '70s forearm shiver to the helmet, knocking Cornish out momentarily.
“The 20-second play clock totally changes the games. That’s the biggest adjustment any receiver has to make up here. The play clock, it never, ever stops.”
—Wide receiver Maurice Price of the Calgary Stampeders, by way of Charleston Southern, on how the 20-second play clock and the pre-snap running the receivers do makes the Canadian game different from the American one.
“Every NFL team should be after Cris Carter’s son. [Montreal wide receiver] Duron Carter is a phenomenal athlete. He’s got every measurable. He’s fast, 6-foot-4, can be a punt returner in the NFL with his size, can run with the ball, has got tremendous body control. When he got on the field last year for us he was just phenomenal. And hopefully he stays healthy this year. He’ll be a highly, highly sought after, Cam Wake kind of guy. This is Duron’s second year, and another year is going to be great for him. But this guy can go in and be a one or two guy [first or second receiver]. He is phenomenal. He can't finish in the CFL season and then go to NFL in 2014, but teams could sign him to a futures deal for 2015.’’
—Montreal GM Jim Popp, on his young and tall receiver, Duron Carter.
The Award Section
QB Drew Willy was the star in Winnipeg's season-opening win over Toronto. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)